Meeting Al Jazeera, Hearing Hamid Karzai

The war on the war, so to speak, is going rather well these days, with numerous standard journalistic organizations fascinated with the CIA-White House leak and showing signs of eventually getting it right. In addition, the interim report from former UN weapons inspector David Kay was reduced to noting plaintively that the absence of (miscategorized) “weapons of mass destruction” found in Iraq does not mean that there wasn’t a potential threat that might have developed sometime.

Hard on its heels came a report from a task force on the Iraqi oil industry which concluded that reconstruction in Iraq is probably going to have to be financed by American taxpayers if it to occur at all. Even though Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz told Congress during the war that “we are dealing with a country that can really finance its own reconstruction, and relatively soon,” the more recent assessments of the Iraqi oil industry is that it is unlikely to generate revenues large enough to contribute much to reconstruction for at least a couple of years.

It turns out that the Bush administration, which had announced earlier in the year that Iraq’s oil revenues would be $20 billion to $30 billion a year, had taken the most outlandishly optimistic estimates from a preliminary Pentagon task force that had a worst-case-to-best case range and actually thought somewhere between worst and middle was likely. But the Bushies took the best-case estimate (some would call it exaggerated) and used it as part of the overall project of selling the war to the American people. Hmmm. Using exaggeration to get people to go along with your grandiose schemes. Does anybody notice a pattern here?

ADVERTISEMENT FOR MYSELF

I have been doing a radio program out of New Orleans recently (WTIX, AM 690, 8 p.m. Central Sunday evenings) in which (as you might expect) I’m rather critical of the war. I still get calls from listeners complaining that I just don’t understand the true nature of the threat we face and the importance of trusting the president and his advisers. If my impressions are correct, however, they are diminishing, and the number of calls from people who are disillusioned with the war is increasing.

Not that this is a “scientific” random sample of the Gulf Coast population of course. What I’ve really noticed, however, is that it’s nice to have facts on your side. It’s marvelously disarming. And the Bushies just keep providing us with facts that don’t support what they’ve done.

With the war on the war going so well, I wanted to write this week about a couple of people I had the opportunity to interact with over the last week or so who might be of interest you Antiwar.com readers – and contributors, whom we thank very much for keeping us alive.

SCOPING OUT AL JAZEERA

It might surprise some people that the World Affairs Council in Orange County, which has a reputation for being beyond conservative in politics, would be interested in inviting somebody from the Arabic television channel Al Jazeera as a speaker for one of its regular meetings. But while most members of the organization are rather conservative, most are genuinely interested in foreign affairs and relatively open-minded. So they welcomed a speaker from the Washington bureau of Al Jazeera last week and listened carefully to what he had to say.

Most Americans had not heard of Al Jazeera television before 9/11, but in the months following its logo seemed to show up everywhere, most notably on video messages from al Qaida mastermind Osama bin Laden. Is this Arabic satellite news service simply the mouthpiece for radical Islamists and would-be terrorists, or is there more to it than that?

The speaker who visited Orange County last week was Hafez Al Mirazi, Al Jazeera’s bureau chief in Washington. The Egyptian-born Mr. Al Mirazi, who has lived in this country since 1983 and is a U.S. citizen, oversees Al Jazeera’s coverage of the United States. Not surprisingly, the coverage tends toward foreign policy issues, especially those that pertain to the Middle East, as well as stories on the growing Muslim-American communities in the United States. Not much in the way of fluffy profiles on food, fashion or entertainment in this country. I had a chance to talk with Mr. Al Mirazi one on one, as well as taking pretty careful notes on his speech.

NEW UNDER THE ARAB SUN?

Mr. Al Mirazi says Al Jazeera is something rather new in the Arab world, a news service not run by one of the region’s governments and broadcasting only the government line. Although subsidized by the Emir of Qatar, who assumed power in 1995, its charter is modeled on the BBC, which means its editorial policy is independent of the government (ask Tony Blair). Not being fluent in Arabic I can’t judge how well it fulfills its mission, but Mr. Al Mirazi says the Emir has not tried to dictate editorial policy.

Many of Al Jazeera’s staff came from a joint effort by the BBC and the Saudi government to establish a BBC Arabic World Service in 1994-1995 that eventually failed. Mr. Al Mirazi claims that the channel tries to cover all sides of disputes, and several Arab governments kicked Al Jazeera correspondents out of various countries because it put dissidents or critics of the government in question on the air. While Arab countries could close offices or bureaus, however, they couldn’t stop satellite signals from crossing the borders.

Al Mirazi did say, however, that one Arab country arranged for a power blackout when it knew Al Jazeera was going to air a program featuring dissidents and critical of its human rights record. No problem. Al Jazeera simply ran the same program two or three times the next day.

Besides giving air time to Arab dissidents, Al Jazeera was the first Arab TV service to give Israeli officials air time, because they considered it important for Arab viewers to know that there were real people in Israel rather than simply stick figures or stock figures. He believes that this policy has gradually contributed to a small shift in Arab public opinion of acknowledgment that Israel exists and is likely to continue to exist for a while, regardless of brave statements from Arab leaders.

ALLOWING BIN LADEN

Airing tapes from bin Laden, then, is simply part of a policy of showing all sides, says Mr. Al Mirazi, and the station tries to do so responsibly. Every bin Laden tape has been followed immediately by a comment or rebuttal from a U.S. official, and on one occasion the station edited out six minutes that were a direct plea for al Qaida supporters to attack specific U.S. targets in the Middle East. Within a few days, Al Mirazi says, Al Jazeera reporters became aware of hundreds of copies of the unedited tapes being circulated in the areas where targets of interest were. “So bin Laden obviously didn’t need Al Jazeera to get his message out to those he really wanted to reach,” Mr. Al Mirazi said.

While U.S. officials initially preferred to ignore Al Jazeera or view it almost as a propaganda arm of the enemy, eventually they came to view it as one way to try to reach and perhaps to affect public opinion in the Arab world. Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell and others have gone on Al Jazeera.

A word of caution. Although I’ve learned some words over the years, I don’t speak Arabic and Al Jazeera is not available on the cable system we have at our house, so I can’t vouch for what’s on Al Jazeera personally. I have talked to Arabic speakers who watch Al Jazeera and say it does air several sides of issues. Hafez Al Mirazi makes a persuasive case that Al Jazeera is exerting a positive influence in the Arab world by giving viewers better access to information. He says it is even contributing to loosening up government controlled TV news in several Arab countries, because the broadcasters can say to their government minders or censors: “You know Al Jazeera is going to cover this story anyway, so you might as well let us air it.”

HAMID KARZAI SPINNING

I also had an opportunity to participate in one of those journalist conference calls that have been fairly popular of late as a way to reach journalists in the hinterlands, this one with Afghan president Hamid Karzai. I want one of those cool capes he always wears and I find the man impressive, but I hope I can listen with a certain amount of detachment.

Hamid Karzai, the interim leader of Afghanistan, just announced his candidacy for president during elections scheduled for next year, but he may be facing political revolt as he returns from an extended speaking tour in the United States and Britain during which this phone call was one of the events. Being the clear favorite of he United States might turn out not to be such an asset as Afghanistan begins to develop something resembling normal politics.

The “nation” of Afghanistan is more an artifact of big-power geopolitical maneuvering during the 19th century, of course, than a country that is a logical unity in ethnic or geographic terms. Over the years most of the efforts to unify it under a strong central government in Kabul have been partial successes at best. Local rulers usually hold sway in local areas, as the British, the imperial Russians and later the Soviets discovered to their grief.

As we all came to understand just a little bit during the attack that ousted the militant Islamist Taliban government, the largest ethnic group is the Pashtuns, to which Mr. Karzai was born. But the Northern Alliance, which provided most of the guerrilla and military muscle that pushed the Taliban out of power, consisted mostly of ethnic Tajiks.

Mr. Karzai has brought Tajiks into his government, which has alienated some Pashtuns. It apparently hasn’t done much for his standing among Tajiks either. Now some Tajik leaders say they don’t support Mr. Karzai for president and seek an alternative candidate.

During his talks in the United States, before the most recent political maneuvering, Mr. Karzai not surprisingly accentuated the positive. He noted that a drought of several years duration has ended and Afghan farmers are expecting the best crops in 25 years. (He did acknowledge that much of it was opium, and he considered the prevalence of opium as an important cash crop was due more to farmers than to tribal “war lords,” He didn’t offer the outright firm condemnation of opium cultivation a questioners almost certainly really wanted, saying that opium cultivation would probably begin to decline when the rest of the economy improved.)

Highway construction and reconstruction has begun and the government he heads, says Mr. Karzai, is beginning to gain respect outside Kabul. He was especially complimentary of the provincial reconstruction teams, under the auspices of NATO and mostly from New Zealand and Germany, who begun to provide security and some government services in the countryside beyond Kabul.

He did acknowledge, however, that political reconstruction has been slower than hoped. A new constitution was supposed to be ready by now, but has been delayed until December. The election scheduled for June might be only for the national presidency is the machinery is not yet in place to register voters and set up mechanisms for local provincial elections.

The American interest in Afghanistan, of course, is not so much that it become a model democracy as that it doesn’t harbor and encourage active terrorists, as the old Taliban regime did. Ironically, a long-term American presence might do more to undermine this goal than a decision to let Afghans run Afghanistan, even if they do it their way rather than our way.

Any decent person wishes Hamid Karzai and Afghanistan well. But as Hamid Karzai told us, “a nation shouldn’t depend on one individual. If I’m not elected it might even be a sign of progress.” That was before he faced open opposition, of course. According to a story in yesterday’s Washington Post he is not at all pleased.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000).

Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).